Marque and Reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon Rothdas book review RSS
1.0 Stars

Ok, I read another one. In my defense, I had already checked it out from the library and left it in the bathroom. It was an improvement over the first one, in that there was an actual action scene. There was also the weird and continual contract parsing of the first book; reading it reminded me most strongly of filling out the paperwork to rent an apartment. There was also some of the most awkward and sad flirting that I've ever read. I kind of want to give the author a hug.

Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon-Moon
1.0 Stars

This book is a sort of low quality imitation of David Weber's already low quality Honor Harrington series. _Trading in Danger_ does at least make you appreciate all the things the Honorverse books did well. For all their flaws, the Honorverse books did have a certain compulsive readability (or listenability) and a beer and pretzels charm. Weber's series has high stakes, more interesting plots, tactical/strategic puzzles, better tech/world building, and even better characterization. Moon's first book just felt very flat. The relationships never quite clicked, the plot was kind of Hardy Boys level, and much of the made up tech was glossed over. Moon did have a lot of legalese and contract negotiation in her book though, so she has that going for her. :(

There's also a continuous fellating of military over civilian values. Not that great.

Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
2.0 Stars

A disappointing and tepid book. There are two basic elements to this book. One is a sort of slice-of-life story telling in 1950's - 1970's Russia, especially amongst the scientists, engineers, and managers. It's natural to compare this to The Gulag Archipelago or The Cancer Ward, since these books have the same time period, location, type of characters, and general structure of storytelling. And when you compare them, Red Plenty comes up very lacking. It is the difference between The Wire (Gulag Archipelago) and an NBC cop show (Red Plenty). The characters in Red Plenty simply never felt right; they never matched up to my conception of how these characters should act or think. They lack the hardness and reality and details that you find in something like Gulag Archipelago, or in Isaac Babel, or even in novels like The Master and Margarita or Road Side Picnic. As Mao put it, Spufford has grown up eating only honey, and it makes his novel seem very false in its basic characterization and story telling (not that there is anything wrong with honey; I love honey! But at the same time I wouldn't try to write these characters.) Reading through the footnotes, Spufford is familiar with most of the Russian novels I listed above, so I guess he just has a lot of misplaced confidence? In fairness, there are some isolated parts at the middle and end of the book where the writing finally starts to come together, but by that time my patience for the book was *really* wearing thin. Page 300 is not the time to try and get the reader interested.

The second element to the book is the potential use of computers and algorithms in order to centrally plan and regulate the entire Soviet economy. This is ok? There are a couple of dozen good pages about this, but in terms of ideas it is not anything you would not pick up from a 4 year CS degree and either reading the back cover of the book or just having read some articles on all the different ways that metrics can pervert decision making.

Absolute Friends, by Le Carre
3.0 Stars

A surprisingly sweet Le Carre book, which is partially spoiled by a predictable and strident ending. This review is a bit spoilery, so if you are interested in reading the book I would perhaps stop... here.

The story covers 60+ years in the life of Ted Mundy, a British leftist, jack of all trades, and occasional spy. There is his early life in Pakistan, then boarding school in England, protest movements in Germany, lotus eating in America, a return to Britain to serve as a cold war spy, and then finally in late life one more espionage adventure. And of course there is the "Absolute Friend" from the title, Sasha, the German leftist, radical, idealist, and double agent, who is Mundy's companion through much the story.

There are a lot of familiar Le Carre themes in this book, but they have a lighter and happier touch than usual. The main character has a fractured and outcast background that prepares him for spying, but he retains a solid heart. He is psychologically fluid like in the _Tailor of Panama_ or _Little Drummer Girl_, but not so much that he splatters into a thousand little droplets. He does pay a price for his espionage during the Cold War, but the price is not so high that it destroys him. And after 60+ years, he has a happiness and peace and the knowledge that his efforts did some good in the world. Oh! And he has a 20 year old stand in for his childhood crush, which is nice for him, I guess. That takes us up to the final part of the book, where Mundy dips his toe back into the world of espionage. At this point it is like a Nabokov novel that has almost reached the end without something really terrible happening; you know that something is up. The last plot/scenes resolve in pretty much the way you would expect it to if you have read the rest of Le Carre's work. I'm not sure I would call it predictable, just in the sense that if something is sign posted enough you start to suspect a fake out after all and you wrap back around to expecting a different twist. But it is very typically Le Carre. The post script was also somewhat long and over done; it's not so much that I disagree with the general ideas, as I do with the cartoonish levels of malevolence and competence that Le Carre ascribes to some parties. I think that part of the reason the ending didn't age well is that it is very much a product of its time, which was immediately after 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, but before that invasion had become widely known as a fiasco.

Quote of the book: "Lawyers are all assholes."

The Algebraist, by Iain M. Banks
5.0 Stars

This is a fairly standard Banks' sci-fi novel, which is another way of saying that it is wildly inventive, smart, enjoyable, and engrossing. Banks has a wonderful ability to create completely enchanting worlds, such that after reading there is this drop or context switch where you have to reload the actual world and how it works. This is a really high mark of quality, and something that I almost never find now that I'm a terribly jaded and sophisticated reader. So, go Banks! :) :D :P

In more detail: The book is not set in the main Culture universe, but it does share many similar themes and ideas. There are multiple levels of simulation/reality and pondering on their worth, there are AI's and AI haters, there are deceptions and clue hunting journeys to exotic locals, there are Azad like empires of varying degrees of cruelty, there are space battles, and there is a technologically superior, affable, intelligent and more life-seeking Culture like grouping. In addition, since this universe doesn't have the widely available FTL travel of the Culture novels, there are a lot of neat ideas about how buildable (and destroyable) wormholes that can only be moved at slower than light speeds would play out on a galactic scale. In addition to these higher level ideas, there is a continual stream of invention and detail in the various races, histories, locations, characters, and religions. Really, there is an embarrassment of ideas in here, and any one of them could have been the foundation for another author's entire novel. This is actually what drew me back to the novel; I had first read the Algebraist years ago, and wanted to refresh my memory of one of the religions in the book. (The religion is a variant of Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument). I had meant to just find a few passages about the religion, but ended up consuming the entire book. The story moved much faster than I remember (or maybe the Atwood has re-calibrated my idea of what a slow novel is like?), and I think I enjoyed the Algebraist even more the second time around.

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
3.0 Stars

I came to this book with high hopes. The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize, and when I think of Booker Prizes I think of Iris Murdoch's wonderful _The Sea, The Sea_. Unfortunately, Atwood is not quite an Iris, and I don't think The Blind Assassin is of the same order of magnitude as Iris' works.

In terms of pure writing style, Atwood is never less than perfectly competent, and she does a good job with description, character, dialog, and occasional dry or biting humor. The writing isn't as brilliant as something like _A Stranger in Olandria_, but it is descriptive and readable and quite skillful. I particularly liked her biting notes to literary critics and thesis students. Nabokov had a similar talent; I get the feeling that authors spend a lot of mental energy composing these rejoinders. :)

The setting and plotting and structure of the novel were less agreeable to me. The book is somewhat dreary. Most of it is set in a small Canadian town around 1910-1950, and the primary narrator is a poor and elderly and regretful lady of that town. So, already the setting is pretty damn depressing, especially if you hate snow and ice and cold like I do. The plot is similarly grim. I don't want to spoil too much, but it's a bit like if Sansa and Arya were both captured by the Lannisters, and then lived with the Lannisters for a couple of decades, and then an elderly Sansa started writing her memoirs. Except that in that case there would at least be a lot of plotting and intrigue over the decades. In the Blind Assassin, there really is not that much plot going on. I feel like I could cover all of the major plot developments in 2-3 sentences, which is a problem when a book is 500+ pages long. One of the reasons this relatively simple plot stretches on for so long is the structure of the novel. The novel is told through 4 interleaved threads. One thread is the thoughts of an elderly Sansa in the present day (1990's), one thread is her reminisces of growing up (1910's-1940's), and then the other 2 threads are from an in-universe book, also called _The Blind Assassin_. The in-universe book is divided into 2 threads, one thread being a novelization/mirror of crucial "real life" events in the 1930's, the other thread being a Conan-style fantasy novel called, you guessed it, The Blind Assassin. So you have 4 threads, but the main plot is only moved along by 2 of them, and those two threads are in large part repeating/mirroring themselves. Maybe I was too unobservant to fully appreciate how the threads interacted with and supported each other, but to me it seemed like there were really 3 stories here, any one of which might have been fine, but when mashed together often slowed down and interrupted each other. As a final and hugely insensitive criticism, I would say that reading this reminded me a bit of reading some of Shakespeare's stories. You understand that the times and ideas were different, but you can't help thinking that man, if they could just abandon some of their meta-physical super structure and other bad ideas about how the world should work, they could have avoided a lot of trouble/death, and dealt with things in a much more sensible manner. Or to put it another way, if their education had only included the complete works of Iris Murdoch, they could have gone about their idealism much more effectively.

So! That is that. I actually liked the in-universe fantasy novel that Atwood created, and would have gladly read a full version of that. I also would have enjoyed an abbreviated, maybe 250 page version of the main plot line. Even the cynical and elderly Sansa would have been ok on her own. The amalgamated story line though was less than the sum of its parts, and it really only makes it to 3 stars on the solid strength of Atwood's writing.

The Way of all Flesh, by Samuel Butler
2.5 Stars

First off, despite the title this is not a zombie book. I know, it fooled me too. The book is instead a semi-humorous, semi-auto-biographical account of the writer's life, with most of the story taking place in England around the year 1850. The heart of the book is the struggle of the author to break from his parents and from the path to priesthood that they had set him on. This part is regularly interspersed with jokes, stories, philosophical tangents, and a general happy cynicism, and overall it works well. It's not quite Jeeves, or Three Men in a Boat, but for something written in 1850 it is surprisingly readable and enjoyable. I would snort and/or lol every 3-5 pages or so, and you feel for the guy, his terrible childhood, his misplaced idealism, and his willingness to lay out some truly embarrassing scenes of himself. The actual institutions he is criticizing are mostly discredited and gone now, so you miss some of the original impact of the book, but it is still enjoyable to read and the story makes familiar a somewhat unfamiliar time and place.

The heart of the book works well, but the appendages not so much. The first ~50 pages are fairly dull, as the author tells the story of the previous 2 generations of his family. There are only a few bright spots here, mostly about his parent's awkward courtship and marriage. The last ~80 pages are also lackluster. At this stage of the writing he lost the editor who had helped him with the rest of the book, and it really shows. The humor mostly goes missing, and rather than being a description of bad things happening to him, it becomes description of the author being an asshole once he comes into his money and freedom. He becomes unhappy with his wife, and then happily finds a reason to annul their marriage and put her back on the streets. He is unhappy with his entire family, so he breaks with all of them. He certainly doesn't want to raise his kids, so he ships them off for someone else to take care of. Literally, he is walking in the park, sees a working class family that seems cheerful, and he hands his kids and a stipend over to them. Parenting complete for the next 10 years! This part I actually liked, since it helped explain to me the British habit of avoiding their children (e.g. Churchill and his parents). At least in the author's case, the reasoning was that he was made miserable and hostile by interacting with his parents, so there's no need to repeat the process with his own kids. Instead he simply provides for them and tries to put them in a decent place to develop. Once he's taken care of all the family tasks, the author then sits back and spends the rest of the book living a life of leisure on top of his massive stacks of cash. Ok, I can't really fault him on that point. :)

In summary, the book isn't bad reading and it has aged fairly well, but it's not the deepest thing or the funniest thing that has been written.

Darkness Visisble
3.0 Stars

A novel about a Manichean struggle that goes on in a 1960's British town. The novel follows the lives of several people in the town, especially their childhoods, and tracks them as they develop and intertwine. The tone of the novel is very odd. On the one hand, it is definitely Christian. There are angels, divine spells (Flame Strike, level 5), and when a holy apparition is questioned as to why bad things happen, it goes with the standard Christian Chewbacca Defense (i.e. free will). On the other hand, just about everything in the novel is dry and/or depressing. For example, there is Matty, the holy character who takes up about 50% of the pages. Matty is multiply disfigured, socially isolated, border-line retarded, has difficulty speaking, and is without friends or family. His religion, which seems to be the factually correct one in the story, is ultra-ultra-Old-Testament and completely alien to any modern sensibility. And he is the cheerful part of the book! The other main characters include a haggard and disgraced elderly pederast, the ineffectual and acid tongued owner of a failing book store, and the Twins of Evil. The twins are intelligent, rich, and beautiful, but also kind of satanic-nihilists. The smarter twin turns to terrorism, while the more physical one starts with duckling-murder, moves to petty-violent crime, and then moves to non-petty violent crime. She also dabbles in a sort of mouldering witch-craft. So, none of the characters are very likable, and the story as a whole doesn't try very hard to draw you along. There are parts that are very readable, but they're certainly not in the first 100 pages, and they're usually broken up by rather more dull sections.

To this list of difficulties I would add that the novel can be more than a bit difficult to understand. Part of it is that I'm not British, and so I don't have a very deep understanding of the differences between Poms and Australians. Part of it is just that the times and diction are a bit different. For example, at one point the book seller tells his male friend to believe his wife, since "she has more bosom than you". This is supposed to be this really serious accidental insult, something that might actually cause a libel suit? And as best as I can figure, the book seller was just implying that his friend was somewhat feminine. There are also a number of spots through out the book, where it seems like the author is saying two contradictory things, and you have to kind of back track and figure out which word in the sentence has a non-modern meaning. For example:

"His sexuality - and this was brilliantly perceived by his fellows - was in direct proportion to his unattractiveness. He was high-minded; and his fellows considered this to be his darkest sin."

On first reading, I took the first sentence to mean that he was an unattractive horn-dog, but then the second sentence contradicts that. The first sentence is actually just saying he has a large cock-volume. So that was fairly easy to figure out, but there are other cases where it is not so clear, and all you can tell is that the first reading maybe doesn't quite make sense?

Hmm, so, what does the novel have going for it? For one, it is well written. Despite occasionally having to puzzle over it, there are some beautiful passages, and it expresses a wide variety of interesting imagery and experience. The Old Testament experiences are presented with a suitable strangeness, and it's very much like having something from Ezkiel transposed to a post-War Britain. The book is also very emo in certain parts, which I like, and it goes deep into several different types or religious or interior experiences. The book also has a happy ending, in that the alien-old-testament-angels seem to achieve their plan?

HellBoy Issues 1-250
4.0 Stars

This series has been an ongoing read for the last couple of months, and one that I have very much enjoyed.

Most of the episodes are the brain-children of Mike Mignola, who is that rare and wonderful triple-threat of design, writing, and art. He plotted and wrote about 90% of the issues, and he did the art for another good chunk of them. I'm not a comic books or visual arts expert, but I really appreciated the sort of spare and stylized and wildly inventive work that Mignola does. That's not to say that the other artists are bad (they're not! And it's neat to see the same characters in ~10 different styles), but it was Mignola's work that first drew me in. Another way of complementing him is to mention that ~20 of the early issues of Hellboy were created by standard comic-book writers, and the difference between their work and Mignola's is just night and day. The non-Mignola issues are pure hack work, and should definitely be skipped over.

Of the 230 issues that remain, only about 30% of them are actually about the titular Hellboy. This isn't really a bad thing, as Hellboy has a tiny bit of the Superman problem of being too invulnerable, and his themes can end up being a bit too repetitive. He's still a neat character though, and it helps that you see him all through his life. There are growing up vignettes, the months spent wrestling and boozing in Mexico, and tons of one-off investigations in the 50's-80's, in addition to the main story line issues. It's also consistently neat how Hellboy perceives and interacts with the living, the long-dead, and the super-natural in a seamless fashion. That is to say, from his perspective the spirit of someone who died 50 years ago, or was executed 600 years, ago is just as real and normal as a living person standing in the same room. So his stories often have these psychedelic transitions between the present day, the past, the spiritual, and the supernatural.

Most of the non-HellBoy issues are set in the BPRD, a government agency responsible for investigating, pre-empting, and trying to contain various supernatural and Lovecraftian threats. The stories cover teams of human and super-natural BPRD agents as they go on their missions. As someone who grew up on X-Com, I am deeply, deeply primed to love this sort of setting. And as with X-Com, things often don't go very well, and there is an appropriately high casualty rate for mortal agents trying to deal with various end-times monsters. There are a couple of rolling apocalypses in the story, as the after-effects of the Nazi space-program have started to release the 369 Lovecraftian monsters buried beneath the earth! Mignola is great with Lovecraftian monster design; for the big ones they are rarely just one thing, rather they unroll and molt and sprout and sporulate in a dozen different ways. He also earns points for destroying most of Houston in an enormous volcano; as a long time resident of the city I say it can't happen too soon.

Besides the above story lines, there are couple of offshoot storylines that have grown to various proportions. There's a witchfinder in the 1600's, an emo and peg-legged and harpoon wielding vampire hunter around pre-WWI Europe, the cheerful and cunning Russian sailor who's water-logged corpse rose to be the head of the Russian BPRD, and of course, the incomparable Lobster Johnson, who is Mignola's version of a golden age Batman or Phantom. Lobster Johnson seems to be a little supernatural (he might be re-incarnating in the corpses of the criminals he has branded?), but he mainly relies on fists, guns, cleverness, and an unshakeable dedication to justice. I started off a bit skeptical, but as with all of Mignola's work I quickly got into it. Feel the Lobster's Claw!

Hmm, what else to say at this point. I think Mignola does a great job with the advice that I've had a few times on this page, that it's ok to just tell small, mostly self-contained, clever stories. I will happily read a 100 of them, as long as they are this high of quality.

The Constant Gardner
3.0 Stars

An unusual Le Carre novel. The novel is not really a mystery, since the central conspiracy and murder are both revealed/strongly indicated early on in the novel. And it is not really a thriller either. Many of the "spy" aspects of the story are told post-facto; the story simply moves to a new location/interview, and how it reached that point is only mentioned in passing during the interview. And Justin (the protagonist) is mostly unkillable, since his position in society protects him. Instead the novel is more of a love story, or a grief story, set amidst different varieties of modern corruption and corporate power. The corruption ranges from gray to black; and in forms from the soft evil of the HR drone to the slightly harder evil of the contract killer/torturer. There are a host of different justifications for the corruption, some quite convincing, and even the central, instigating crime of the book is something that takes a few sentences to explain and that many people would be largely ok with. Which I guess is something of its point.

It's also kind of a disspiriting book, even by Le Carre standards. Justin is wealthy, educated, connected, has police allies and a world wide network of friends and family, and even he has difficulty fighting back against the security services. The ending is also kind of a punch in the gut (zing!); I can see why the movie adaptation had to soften it. Reading Le Carre definitely prepares you for the evening news. CIA torture report is released, and the only one prosecuted is a CIA whistleblower? Yep, no surprises there.

In any case, I do always enjoy the character duets that Le Carre sets up. He has wonderful interviews/investigations between a large variety of characters, and the characterization and texture of these interviews is always a pleasure to read.

A. Lincoln: A Biography
3.0 Stars

A serviceable biography of Abraham Lincoln. I don't think it had a great amount of insight, its analysis of Lincoln's speeches and religion was often uninspiring, and it has a couple of places where it basically says "we don't have any actual information about what happened here, but surely something like this happened based on my active imagination". On the plus side it was readable, and it did add detail/nuance to my views on a couple of aspects of Lincoln's life (e.g. his views on race/slavery, his racial comments during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and his performance at the start of his administration).

A Princess of Mars/Swords of Mars
2.0 Stars

These were two short adventure stories written by Burroughs around 1915-1930. They are ok, for the time period, maybe? The stories read very quickly, and at times are plot to the exclusion of all else. On these occasions it reads a bit like the wikipedia synopsis of its own story. The Hero is perfect and manly, and he meets massive success in every endeavor with occasional setbacks opening the way for larger successes. The social politics of the story are just moderately to the left of Gor. On the plus side, I enjoyed the weird 1920's diction, the continual stream of new pulp creatures and settings, and the author's penchant for abrupt resolutions. Near the end of both books there are plot developments/complications that most authors would spend 100+ pages resolving. Burroughs is like "Nope, a half page is plenty to wrap this up in. Annddd, done."

Snake Agent
3.0 Stars

A well written, Eastern themed urban fantasy novel that sort of wobbles out of control in the last third of the book. I did enjoy the first two thirds of the book though. The writing is fine, the eastern mythology is new to me in this genre, and there were a number of interesting, amusing, and flavorful characters. Unfortunately, in the last third it has this common urban fantasy problem where they feel the need to either go really big or go really dark or both. Authors, it's ok to just tell small, interesting stories with good characters! But in this case a murder investigation escalates to the threat of a world ending plague, there are a long series of deux ex machinas, and the interesting characters and duos from the first part are all glommed together and have no chance to interact or breathe. Anyway, not a bad book but not a great one either.

Winter's Dreams
4.0 Stars

An enjoyable set of short stories from Glen Cook, one of my favorite childhood authors. I haven't read anything from Cook for a while, so it was good to see that he holds up. The stories have a variety of settings (modern day, near future, far future, far-far future, some far future planets that for various reasons have to use more primitive tech, and finally some just completely out there fantasy worlds). The common theme to all the stories is betrayal, or at least deeply divided loyalties.

As always, I just enjoy Cook's style and worldview. He's perfectly happy to throw the reader out there, in media res, and explain only ~40% of what is going on in a world. It's a strategy that works well in his sci-fi and fantasy, and lends stories more color than if he bothered to explain everything.

A few notes about some of the particular stories:

  • _The Devils Tooth_ and _Winter's Dream_ - I've never actually read Vance, but as I understand it these are very Vancian. These were two of my favorites, as Cook steps out of his usual comfort zones and creates some really alien and age-worn settings.
  • _In the Wind_ and _Dragons in the Sky_ - Fine stories, but they're set in Cook's main sci-fi universe, and it seems like they have major spoilers for that series. Not a concern for everyone, but it is for me since I was planning to read that series next.
  • _The Recruiter_ - Also set in his sci-fi universe, though not spoilery. Cook's sci-fi universe has some similarities to Scalzi's _Old Man's War_, but it seems like a more realistic take on the idea. Like _Old Man's War_ it assumes that humans are still useful in far-future wars, and that Old Earth is the main population center for humanity. In this take though, rather than bothering to refurbish old entitled white guy's bodies, they just use the planet as a 20 billion person ghetto to draw desperate and impoverished recruits from.

The Departure
2.0 Stars

A well written, bloody, sci-fi action novel that is badly flawed by its wing-nut techno-libertarian world-building. It's kind of like _Atlas Shrugged_ crossed with a _A Deepness in the Sky_ crossed with a well-written Halo novel (Do those exist? We will assume they exist.)

So, first the world building. Trigger Warning: if you are a wing-nut libertarian, maybe you shouldn't read the next part. The novel is set ~100 years in the future, where political correctness has run amok. Led by the socialist bureaucrats of the European Union, a repressive World Government has taken over and state power has greatly expanded. As we all know, governments are immensely wasteful, the more so the larger they become. So the world government has ruined everything with its wastefulness, regulations, and mis-allocation of resources. Cash is almost non-existent, and most people subsist on a meager state welfare. The people are forced to use universal healthcare, which is of course a synonym for death panels and suicide booths. Only in a few places outside of the state's cameras can free trade flourish, and in these spots people wise enough to squirrel away gold can purchase the best of the black market. In general, the world is terrible and running out of resources. This is driven in large part by over population, with a world population of 18 billion. (Side note: it turns out that it if you give people half way decent lives and control of their reproductive health, they are happy to limit themselves to ~1.9 children per couple. It's a pattern that has repeated in nearly all of the developed countries. I wish the author could have taken some sustainability courses before using the idiotic word "manswarm" so often.)

Global warming doesn't seem to be a problem at least. Hmm, what else. There are also elements of a sort of reactionary misogyny, tech-CEO worship, and a general dislike of democracy, though those issues are somewhat less in your face than the above.

Whew. So, there is all of that. On the positive side, The Departure is a very competently written action sci-fi. I've read reviews comparing it to a sci-fi Bourne Identity, and that sounds about right. The action is very bloody and the story is rather dark, and the number of people killed rises exponentially as the story goes along. (As I understand it, this continues on in the sequel, until the 18 billion people run out.) But if you are ok with that, the action of the book is all very fine. It's a bit like _A Deepness in the Sky_, in that it pits tech people/programmers against managers, and has lots of fights on space stations and moon bases, fights that hinge on things like who has access to the reactor or hydroponics section or the armory, or who has root access to the kill-bots. So if you could somehow strain out the ideological irritants in the story, you would just have a good old fashioned tale of righteous programmers liquidating useless and heartless administrators. In that case I'd be perfectly fine in recommending the book. And in a general sense I am sympathetic to the concerns that the author raises. It's not hard to see how the displacement of labor by automation, militarized drones, ubiquitous surveillance, and enormous levels of inequality within society could combine into some very bad things. It's just that I see the people doing the very bad things as those who are currently in power, e.g. the Kochs and the security services, rather than the Tumblr crowd or people interested in reducing inequality. Or to put it another way, the Libertarian hero/Owner of the story seems more likely than anyone to be the cause of the dystopia that the author portrays.

Anyway. Overall this is a flawed and annoying book that made me worry about the safety of the people around the author.

The Killer Angels
2.0 Stars

A somewhat mawkish war novel set during the three day Battle of Gettysburg. The PoV characters are mostly Confederate or Union leaders (e.g. Longstreet, Lee, Chamberlin), and the author creates fictional inner lives and dialog for the commanders and then places that within a recounting of the events of the battle as we know them. The book didn't really work for me. The tone was a bit off; it reminded me of reading Esquire, or maybe a bad Cormac McCarthy novel, where they try to add more stylistic touches and moral super-structure and metaphysical baggage to people and events than they will really support. On the other hand, the book wasn't all bad. I did like how it at least partially recognized that in many ways the war was a preview of the lessons of WWI, and that in general it was just a gigantic ongoing clusterfuck. The book also served its secondary purpose, which was to get me pumped up for playing Ultimate General: Gettysburg, a new and highly reviewed video game about the battle.

Post-script: After playing the game, it turns out I'm just as bad a general as the originals. To the brigade that I marched into an interlocking series of artillery emplacements, I am so, so sorry.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
2.0 Stars

A perfectly absurd book. I read this 900 page tome while dreadfully sick, unable to move from bed or really do anything else. And that is the ideal way to read this book, and about the only way that I could recommend reading it.

The book is immensely overwritten. It tells the pre-history of WWI via character and family. Each of the dozens of historical figures is introduced with a 3+ page life sketch. In addition, you learn about their ancestors, often just to the level of their parents, but the author is really happiest when he can also write another ten or twenty pages about their grand parents and great grand parents too. And there really doesn't seem to be anything that the writer felt the need to leave out. Anecdotes, letters, relationships, adulteries, hobbies, estate histories, early careers, daily habits, office arrangements, inter-office rivalries, everything that the author turned up in his researches is stuffed into this book. If I had come across this manuscript typewritten on someone's desk, and without the official binding and "Pulitzer Prize Winner" quotes on the front, I would suspect the author of severe mental illness. It would be something akin to the hoarder's inability to tell useful material from junk, and never being able to edit out anything that they've accumulated.

And it is a shame; Massey can write with great acuity and precision when he puts his mind to it. There are excellent sections which perfectly explain the European balance of power and diplomatic considerations, or various strategic naval considerations at play. He clearly has a great understanding of the material, and I think he could have written a really wonderful 300 page book on the subject.

Unfortunately though, the clear and useful sections are buried under this weight of European politics as high school pettiness and cliques. There are endless sections on who snubbed who, which royals liked each other, how this state visit went, which ministers disliked each other, how they nepotized or back-stabbed each other, etc. etc. It is kind of interesting in that it paints a picture (an accurate picture?) of the British and German civil service, and their various monarchs. In the end though I'm not sure that all those 100's of pages shed any light on anything. No matter what the soft-relations, Britain's continental policy was the same as it had been for the last 300 years, to support the weaker alliance over the stronger alliance in order to keep any one power from dominating the continent. So in the end I'm not sure that the personal relationships or snubs really mattered that much. Similarly, when writing about 1914 and the arrival of war, Massey is quite clear that A) the German's wanted war, and that B) they saw it as a preventive war, that they needed to undertake when they were at a relative maximum of power and before Russia could start displacing them. And when you are reading this section, it's like "well, why didn't you write about this at all in the previous 850 pages?". I mean, if this was the hard rational for a war that the Germans knew would trigger the various alliance structures, why even bother with all the fluff in the rest of the book? Especially so since at this phase the Kaiser was basically sidelined, so all the pages of psychological modelling of him is moot as he did not affect this key decision.

So, anyway. If you'd want a book that talks about the high level royal and diplomatic life in the 100 years before WWI, I guess this is your book. If you're looking for a book in the vein of the Guns of August, which explains how WWI came to be, then this book is not something I could recommend.

Memorable tidbits from the book:
- The case of the Hussar's breeches. The royal navy was transporting some Hussars, however on arrival their breeches were found to be damaged by saltwater. The hussar's officer tried to get the ship's captain to pay for the damages, he refused, the Hussar appealed to his commander, he made a case to the equivalent naval commander, he kicked it up the chain of command, and so on and so forth through the army and naval hierarchy. At last it reached the First Sea Lord, Fischer, the head of the British Navy. On reading the case file, he promptly threw all of the papers into his fireplace. Problem solved! In some ways things were much simpler before email.

- The beautiful Princess Alexa, who was married to the English King before the war. The book mentions that she was a hottie on approximately ten different occasions. Later on, there is a picture of her at age 64, and wow they were not lying. That was not good genes, or make-up, or the lighting of the photograph. She was obviously a vampire. There is no way that a 64 year old person looks that good. Later on there is supporting evidence; on having to cross the north sea, she was said to have lain motionless on deck "like a corpse". This also agrees with the history laid out in _Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter_.

- Churchill's parents, who took the English habit of ignoring their children to ludicrous extremes. There are about a half dozen of the most over the top, puppy-dog-eyes pleading letters from a tween Churchill, asking for just the barest crumb of kindness or attention from his parents.

- It turns out that among his other douche-bag features, Bismark was a proto-libertarian. He was violently opposed to the German State curtailing the freedom of women and children to work for 14 hours on Sundays.

Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy
2.0 Stars

The title of this anthology is wildly inaccurate; the stories inside aren't so much urban fantasy as they are a collection of fantasy stories that happen in a city, or nearby a city, or off the coast of a city, or in the ruins of a city, or just fairly near a place that at one time might have had 100 or more people. Similarly, you can ignore the bloviating introduction section that tries to make some deeper connection between the various stories and cities in general. The sophmore English major who wrote it should be ashamed. Also on the shame-list are most of the authors in the second half of the book; most of these stories stink of the MFA and try and fail to be artistic. Reading these stories was like watching one hurdler after another leaping, and then tangling in their hurdle and crashing head long into the ground. There were however some good stories in the first half, things were you read them and you are like yes, I need that in my RPG campaign. The good ones were:

  • Sammarynda Deep - Best worldbuilding is best, good writing
  • The Funeral, Ruined - worldbuilding!
  • Andretto Walks the Kings way - lightly enjoyable and well written
  • Courting the Lady Scythe - predictable, but neat worldbuilding
  • The Bumbelty's Marble - worldbuilding
  • The One that Got Away - unicorns
  • The Title of this Story - well written

I would flat out skip the other stories though.

Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter
4.0 Stars

A surprisingly enjoyable read. I was initially intrigued by the book when I opened it at random and read a scene between a corrupt and licentious Bertie Wooster and his zombie Jeeves as their attempt to subborn a pederast MP goes awry. The rest of the book mixes in other elements, like villainous ministers, demonic foes, gruesome tableaux, meaty combat scenes, historical re-imagining, and a few truly terrible puns. The book isn't a literary masterpiece, but the author did yeoman's work and produced a high quality mix of humor and adventure. It was "fun" to read, unlike the other books in its litter (Accelerando, a random fantasy anthology).

Essays in Idleness
3.0 Stars

Several hundered musings by a Japanese noble from a millenia ago. The musings are a mixed bag, and in some ways it is like reading random excerpts from the bible. Some musings are useless nonsense, and talk about a minor point of court or village etiquette. These are the equivalent of the "X begat Y" bible passages. Others musings are more relevant and are recognizable as valid points that still apply to the current day. The points aren't original, but it is neat to see them in ancient texts. For example, about how a man who greatly desires wealth will be miserly and live like a poor man in order to achieve his goal. Or more generally, how someone with a great desire will end up acting like someone with no desire in order to best achieve their ends.

Many other passages are more ambivalent. They could be interepreted as Budhist or Taoist parables if you squint hard enough, or they could just be minorly amusing or odd or pointless anecdotes from the author's life. My favorite of the amusing anecdotes was a top-ten list of moments in his life where everything came off perfectly and he looked really cool and knowledgeable in front of people he wanted to impress.

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